Washington should provide choices for low-income students | Don Brunell

The battle lines over alternatives such as charter public schools or school vouchers have been sharply drawn in our state.

The battle lines over alternatives such as charter public schools or school vouchers have been sharply drawn in our state.

Supporters say the issue is choice; that education is the key to a child’s future and parents — particularly low-income parents — should be able to send their children to the best possible schools. Opponents argue that alternatives to traditional public schools drain crucial revenue and leave behind only the poorest and most challenging students.

Now there is a solution that addresses both concerns: Tax Credit Scholarships.

Tax Credit Scholarships — funded by private donors — have been shown to save scarce tax dollars while enabling low-income parents to choose the best school for their children.

The scholarships would go to low-income students in K-12, allowing them to consider private schools or out-of-district public schools that better suit their individual needs — an option that is already available to higher-income families.

Florida already has such a program.

Administered by Florida’s Department of Revenue, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, called “Step Up For Students,” was approved by legislators in 2001. The program provides K-12 education scholarships for low-income students that cover up to $4,011 for private school tuition and fees or up to $500 in transportation costs for students to attend an out-of-district public school.

Money for the scholarships is donated through approved nonprofit scholarship-funding organizations (SFO) funded by Florida companies. In return, the companies receive a tax credit from the state. As with any tax credit, the state writes the rules that govern SFOs and administers the program.

Because the scholarships — and the related tax credits — are limited to half the usual cost to educate a student in the public schools, the state comes out a winner. The state retains half the cost of educating a student ($5,000), but that student has moved out of the public school system and into an educational setting that can better help them succeed.

Washington could — and should — do the same.

The scholarships would be limited to low-income and special needs children, and transferring students would be required to meet the same state educational standards as all other students.

Participation by private schools would be voluntary, and the only “strings” attached to children transferring to participating private schools would be a requirement that the schools accept the scholarships as full payment for tuition.

What would this mean for Washington public schools?

Today, approximately one million Washington children attend the state’s public schools and 100,000 attend the state’s private schools. If 10,000 low-income and special needs children transferred from public to private schools as the result of a Tax Credit Scholarship program and each transfer saved the state $5,000, the net benefit to the state budget would be $50 million.

Lawmakers could then reinvest that $50 million in K-12 education to improve public schools.

Even though Washington doesn’t have an income tax, private individuals and businesses who donate to qualified SFOs could receive a state tax credit from, for example, their state property taxes or Business and Occupation taxes. Most states provide a tax credit equal to 95 percent or more of the amount donated.

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program was created to help alleviate the enormous educational challenges faced by low-income children. Washington could do the same.

In the end, it really comes down to what’s best for students and the most effective way for them to learn. As famed 19th century education reformer Horace Mann said, “Education is the great equalizer.”  Tax Credit Scholarships give low-income parents a choice and give low-income students an equal chance for success.